19 May 2019

Eleanor O. and an Itinerary

There are a few women in my neighbourhood who are good friends because dogs brought us together.  Letting the dogs play has evolved into wine on the patio (as it will) every now and then.  Just over a year ago we talked about starting a book club with my choice of The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry as the book to start things off.  At the inaugural meeting it turned out that two of us had finished the book (in my case, a reread) while the other four members bailed before the ending.  As a way to smooth things over, I was asked to suggest something else for further down the road.  'The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters is a wonderful read!' I said.  Our host shouted 'What?!'  Apparently her other book group were not at all keen when they read it earlier that year.  To be fair, I wasn't excited about their choices either so I bowed out gracefully.  We still chat about the dogs and drink wine on the patio but when it comes to books I break from the pack. 

A few weeks ago, one of the book club members asked me to join in for their next read.  It was Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine and my friend just so happened to have two copies at home.  'Oh alright then'.  To be Completely Honest I wasn't expecting to like it.  

With over 39,000 reviews on Goodreads and more than 6,000 on Amazon there can't possibly be many readers out there who don't know what this book is about so I'll take a pass on repeating the synopsis.  What I will say is the same message was often relayed on podcasts I listen to....woman leaves work on Friday, spends her weekend drinking alone, then goes back to work on Monday.  Yes, loneliness plays a part in the story but after only a few pages I was smiling....and slightly worried because, just like Eleanor, I also enjoy the Daily Telegraph and The Archers and am very okay with my own company. 

Talking about the book with a colleague at the library I said 'I'm laughing but something tells me I shouldn't be'. Eleanor is doing her best under circumstances that can sometimes crush people; you can't help but root for her.  Gail Honeyman has done a wonderful job of portraying an unsettling aspect of the human psyche while still allowing the sun to shine through the clouds.  Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine was an unexpected reading pleasure and I'm very glad my arm was twisted to read the book. 

Reading time is competing with trip planning as I'm going to London in September!  On my list so far is a tour of the London Library, Tate Britain, The Guildhall Art Gallery, Churchill War Rooms, Fenton House and Burgh House in Hampstead, Dulwich Village, and mulling day trips to Charleston Farmhouse or Knole.  Persephone Books is hosting a talk on Anna Gmeyner and Elisabeth de Waal that sounds very interesting, and I'm watching the British Library's events page for their talks. 

No one wants to wish away the next few months of glorious weather but I'm so looking forward to being in London again.

Fenton House
Hampstead

3 May 2019

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

The cover art of the Vintage edition of this book grabs my attention every time it crosses the desk at the library.  I was probably first in line when the film came out but the details have blurred.  It's time to revisit this story, and to do it properly.

The Remains of the Day begins in the summer of 1956.  Mr. Farraday has offered Stevens, his butler, the Ford so he can take a holiday while he's away for several weeks in the United States.  Stevens, unaccustomed to an offer to enjoy the countryside in such leisure, replies that he has seen the beauty of England from within the walls of Darlington.  After much cajoling from Mr. Farraday about seeing the world, Stevens relents and gratefully accepts the kind gesture.   The arrival of a letter from a former housemaid, Miss Kenton (now Mrs. Benn) seals his plan for a destination.

Darlington Hall was once a noble country house filled with dozens of servants to wait on family and  guests.  Modern times and new ownership have meant sweeping change and Stevens now heads a staff of only a few.  Reading between the lines of the former housemaid's letter, Stevens wonders if perhaps she would like to return.  What becomes apparent by this point is that this is very much a novel about the things that are not said.

I will admit that it wasn't until I reached the 80 page mark that I started to feel invested in this story.  The rigidity of language, absence of emotion, and lack of description when it came to soft-furnishings kept me at arm's length from the characters, vast rooms and hallways at Darlington Hall.  Then it all became clear....that's exactly Ishiguro's point.  Stevens' English reserve and pinpoint execution of his position as Head Butler come through loud and clear.

When Stevens' narration turns to retrospection, it's back to just before WWII.  An important conference is about to take place at Darlington Hall with an American senator, a German ambassador, and a gentleman from France with political ties.  Oswald Mosley's backshirts and Nazi sympathizers have circled around Lord Darlington causing much concern for members of Lord Darlington's family and other political figures.

One aspect of being an excellent butler is to see all but say nothing, at times to the point of detriment.  Stevens' stiff upper lip is exhibited in the extreme when he's told his father is dying in a room upstairs...

   'I'm proud of you.  A good son.  I hope I've been a good father to you.  I suppose I haven't.'  
 'I'm afraid we're extremely busy now, but we can talk again in the morning.'

At day's end, Stevens triumphs in the fact that every detail of his responsibility to Lord Darlington and the conference was a success.  Is Stevens devoid of sentiment or overflowing with a sense of duty? 

During his car journey to Cornwall to meet with Miss Kenton, Stevens is neglectful of details such as water in the radiator and petrol in the tank.  Whether ignorant in the ways of motor vehicles or on the slippery slope to sloppiness, he's losing his edge.  He questions what remains of this next phase of his life and how to move forward.  Has he been too rigid, spent too much time pleasing and trusting others....and what does he have to show for it?

As Stevens sits on a pier, watching the lights turn on and brighten the dark sky, he realizes it's not too late to change.

Ishiguro's patient storytelling unfolds beautifully in The Remains of the Day; it's a masterclass in the art of 'show' rather than 'tell'.  And while I didn't have the best of starts with this novel, by the end I was completely won over.

Portrait of Alexander J. Cassatt by Mary Cassatt 
(1880)